Today was an interesting and good reminder for me that I need to explicitly be teaching students that Socratic seminars are not a place for debate, but discussion.
My 6th graders are currently reading Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it for all students between the ages of 10 and 12. It tells the story of Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee whose parents died and he was forced to live in the most unhappy of places - with his Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan who hate each other. One day, Maniac can’t take it anymore and he runs away! He crosses the racial lines that divide the city of Two Mills and quickly becomes a legend or a myth. No one is really sure.
We’ve only just begun the story, but my classes have been studying the civil rights movement, so they are already making connections and some good predictions. There is a part at the beginning of the story, where Maniac is being chased by bullies and he heads in the direction of the side of town that no white kid has ever gone. At night and for no reason, nonetheless! The bullies comment that they are going to just let him go because he will end up in worse shape, heading into a part of town that he doesn’t belong. In the book, the author writes: “He headed to a part of town that white people are afraid to go to.”
For me, teaching online since March has really taken a toll on my enjoyment and the fulfillment I usually get from teaching. I remember when we were first shut down and asked to stay home for at least 2 weeks, I was thankful for the break, but still excited to return after spring break. After I realized that we were not going to be saying goodbye to our students in person and head into the summer, I was devastated.
Since then, I have gone through what I consider different stages of grief that eventually led to acceptance. I accepted that teaching is not what it used to be and I've accepted that looking forward at what I can do to make it enjoyable for my students as well as myself will look very different than what I am used to.
I know you have heard this before, but it's important to repeat. Happiness is a state of mind. IF we can control our mindset, we can control how we feel (to an extent). So what can we do to find FULFILLMENT in teaching while doing so online and never actually having physical contact with our students and colleagues?
Below is a short list of things I do that sometimes help me to stay positive in our very stressful, stale and fragmented teaching environment. Perhaps some of these ideas you can try and make your school year a bit more of a positive experience for everyone.
So it is official that I will be teaching my 6th graders online, at least, for the first 6 weeks of school. Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was “How will I ever get to know 60 students if I never get to actually meet and be around them in person?!” and then “How will they get to know each other?!” It has always been my top priority to build relationships with kids as I feel that is the number one way to begin to effectively teach them anything. So my challenge to myself is to do just that - build relationships. Online. With 60 pre-teens who know way more about technology than I do.
As Humanities teachers, I feel that we have an advantage, in some ways. In other ways, definitely not. We can assign tasks that allow us to get to know our students while having them practice writing and reading skills. Below are some ideas that I hope will give me a place to start with getting to know my students. Feel free to borrow these ideas, tweak them to make them your own if need be and share with me about how they go. I would love to hear and see what others end up doing!
I actually managed to make this happen - a Socratic seminar via Zoom with a bunch of 6th graders.
I am not sure where you stand, but I am going to be brutally honest and run the risk of sounding like (to some) a complete brat. But....here it goes.
It's taking a lot out of me to teach online. It's not like I am teaching online all day, but it feels like I am, and it's not like I don't have a space to work, I do, but it's not my classroom. And even if I spend 2 hours online, I am spending much more time than that planning and figuring out things I really don't want to be figuring out in the first place. Then I have parent emails, virtual meetings and collaboration with colleagues to decide how we are going to do this for (the worst part) the unforeseeable future. After all is said and done, I am checking and double checking which students I saw online and who was missing and who hasn't been doing their work and why. Is there something else we can do to help them get things done? Am I not trying hard enough? I am exhausted like this is my first year teaching, though most of it might just be the impending depression I feel from this entire situation in general. There is absolutely nothing I enjoy about distance learning, expect seeing my students faces each day. But that's hardly been much because it was mostly fragmented conversations whenever I could get them online with me.
Today, all of that changed. I did something that gave me joy in teaching again. I carved out 2 hours and planned 4 half hour sessions on Zoom with 14 students in each meeting and was determined to give the students what they've been asking for, an opportunity to chat with each other and what I've wanted, an opportunity to do some teaching the way I used to, using Socratic seminars.
I read an article with tips on how to humanize digital teaching and it was suggested to create opportunities for dialogue and discourse. So I feel like I am on the right track here.
How did I make it happen? Well it wasn't perfect, but it wasn't half bad either!
It's been a couple of weeks since I've emailed my subscribers and thought I should share this email on my blog as well. That was about a week before this crisis hit California and then ultimately our entire country and countries worldwide. I'm in San Diego and was in my classroom a week before students' exhibition of their 11 weeks of hard work was supposed to take place.
My teaching partner and I were hoping that our school would be able to hold out one more week until our Spring break and allow for the students' community partners, families and peers join us in exhibiting and sharing their work. Sadly, on that Friday, I saw the list get longer and longer of the nearby schools that were closing and eventually, before the end of the school day, ours was announced as closed until further notice.
One of my favorite things about teaching writing is the fact that I get to write alongside my students. I do this not only because I think it’s super fun, but also because it’s so very helpful to my students. The strategies I use the most while modeling writing is “think aloud” and using published texts to emulate what real authors do.
While using the writing process and incorporating these other strategies, students get a real sense of what it means to be a writer and they learn that working through these steps is not easy for anyone (and if it is, they are not doing it right). Students also learn that one single piece of writing could technically go on forever, so knowing when to stop is important, too.
One thing I am asked about often is how to grade for the work students complete in Socratic seminars. I like to think of it more as tracking and assessing rather than grading. It’s more important to track progress than it is to give students a grade because Socratic seminars are designed to meet students where they are in terms of the many different skills needed to have a successful seminar. In order to monitor progress, I track student participation along with a writing piece where I also provide a rubric for a more traditional sense of grading. Together, I am able to really assess a student’s understanding of our class novel and identify areas in which they need more support.
For the first 13 years of my career, I was teaching in a self-contained classroom, most of that time was with 5th graders, and no matter what grade I was in, I was ALWAYS doing read alouds. Read alouds were my favorite part of the day. In October, I usually read The Witches by Roald Dahl and tried to perfect my Russian accent (it was horrible, but still a lot of fun!). At the beginning of the school year, I read Wonder by RJ Palacio to bring the community together through reading. In January, I always chose a book that related to the history I was teaching, whether it be WWII or the Civil Rights Movement. By the end of the school year, I would have mystery, historical fiction, fiction, nonfiction and fantasy under my belt. The kids would look forward to it after lunch everyday and so did I!
This year is my first year teaching middle school, 6th grade, and I was not prepared to give up my sacred read aloud time. And luckily, I am at a school where that is not expected. However, it’s not as easy to fit into my day as I hoped. Typically, my schedule is two 50 minute periods with two different classes. So I see each class twice a day for 50 minutes.
In October, students in my class prepare for their student-led conferences by reflecting on how their school year is going so far and a goal they want to achieve. During the conference, the parents and I (along with the student) create a plan for the goal to be met.
So many of my students recognized that they do not speak enough or at all during Socratic seminars. I was proud of them for noticing this struggle and I started to notice a pattern as to why they were having so much trouble sharing during the seminars. There were two most prominent reasons as to why this was occurring; one reason was because most students were lacking the confidence in their ideas and take-aways from the reading. The other students didn’t feel like they had anything to say.
After speaking with over 58 of my students in these student-led conferences, I felt like a pro at troubleshooting, strategizing and formulating solutions. I was emotionally and mentally drained by the end of that week, but it was so great. I learned a lot about my students and I learned a lot about how I can support many of them in participating more in Socratic seminars.
I love this twist I put on traditional character maps! Above is an example of one I made for the character Auggie Pullman, from the AMAZING book Wonder by RJ Palacio.
In the past, I would have students draw out the character on large butcher paper and write a quick sentence about what is important to the character, what is something close to the character's heart and maybe something the character owned written by his hands and then by his feet, places he went. I liked this idea because it engaging for students to color and design the life-size character map, but it was mostly all artwork and not academic. And as a Humanities teacher, that just didn't feel right.
That all changed when I let go of what I saw others doing and did my own thing!
Daughter of the King, wife and mother, former upper elementary teacher, curriculum and course developer